In a recent blog post that seems to have provoked at least one four-letter response, I promised to give yet more unsolicited advice, on how I would design and execute “a meeting for 200 people that involved new people, old people and the what next question?”
I already addressed some of these questions in an email, but here are some nittier and grittier details. I do this more to try to share a general philosophy and some tricks of the trade, rather than say there is “One Right Way.” Because, well, there isn’t. It’s also good for me to think seriously about these, since Climate Emergency Manchester (I’m involved) is holding a public meeting – ‘What Next for Climate Action in Manchester?‘ on Thursday23rd May at the Friends Meeting House, 6 Mount St (7pm mingle, 7.30 start) and we will face the same issues (and I will do a similar blog post)
What is it all about – what would success look like?
As with ANY meeting, you want to ask yourself “why are we having it? Why are we asking busy people, often of limited resources, to come? How does their coming to the meeting help them be part of the movement? How can we as an organisation benefit from their physical presence? What about all those people who wanted to come but couldn’t, or want to know what happened?”
I was intending to make this “hypothetical”, but no point pretending I think. XR Manchester had a big contingent of people in London over the last fortnight. Their informal social last Monday at the Sandbar had about 45 people present. Their next meeting, on Monday 29 April, from 6pm, at the Breadshed (basically next door to the Sandbar on Grosvenor St) could easily see 200 people rock up. That is a huge challenge. Seriously, a HUGE challenge. So, on with the unsolicited advice.
Why are we having the meeting?
Presumably, what XR Manchester wants to get from the meeting is along these lines
a) Welcome lots of new people and give them a chance to learn about your groups culture, values and demands [ideally by doing them rather than being told about them]
b) Discuss/recap what happened in London/Manchester, celebrate
what went well, talk about what they’d do differently next time/what went badly
c) Discuss what needs to happen next in Manchester and nationally
The main additional goal for XR that I would push, were I involved in it, would be to ask not just for people’s contact details, but also
- what knowledge, skills and relationships people HAVE
- what knowledge, skills and relationships people WANT
- how (if) they want to use their specialist skills for the health of the organisation. (who knows, maybe they want to “switch off “from that and cut onions.)
- when they are available, to do what, for how long (while being aware that this will change – in both directions)
All the while trying not to come across as a high-pressure cult.
I’d would have probably called it, for the sake of argument “From London to Manchester: reflections and connections” because words like “debrief” and “visioning” give most people flashbacks to horrible manipulative corporate shite they have had to endure while in precarious poorly paid bullshit jobs.. Also, “London Debrief” implies that if you weren’t there, you don’t have anything to say… Still, water under the bridge (or “carbon into the atmosphere” as people don’t say, but should).
The whole question of how much specific planning/prep to do – well, see footnote one, because I don’t want to slow down the narrative even more.
BEFORE the meeting,
Aside from putting on the meeting, I’d ask other people to make sure that any conflicts and problems about London were at least begun-to-be-dealt-with before a public meeting. No need to have the unmitigated risk of conflict breaking out if you can help it.
- Figure out who your facilitators are. Have more than enough- there are always some people who simply can’t make it on the day because they are busy/knackered.
- Have a clear and simple agenda/format, worked out in advance and circulated in advance (my proposal is in this bog post).
- Explain in advance what the purposes of the meeting are and answer questions, hear suggestions for modifications etc. You know, a SMEAC. The facilitators must know the exact purpose of each section of the meeting, and their “job” inside out, back to front (the success of a meeting is utterly dependent on execution. No design can survive Murphy’s Law, and Murphy was an optimist.
- Have WRITTEN information about XR’s aims, modes of working, current status and needs available for everyone (people usually read quicker than they can hear).
I’d get people to make written suggestions about ‘what next’ onto the website, so people have a chance to think through other people’s suggestions. NB It is quite likely, given exhaustion and Easter etc that very few people will do this. The principle however is important. [Also, XR Manchester now has a (long-awaited, by me at least) website. It looks fantastic, and when it goes live (Sunday?) I will add a link to it.]
I would also want as much basic information about the organisation on the website (demands, history etc) in the form of a FAQ and a pdf. Yes, not many people coming to the meeting will read it but a) some will and b) it’s the principle of the thing dammit.
DURING the meeting
As people turn up, welcome them, give them the two-sides of A4 to read which explain the basics of XR, and tonight’s agenda and its purpose(s).
Start on time, regardless how many people are still turning up. Delaying start times rewards late comers and makes everyone thing “no point turning up on time.” Punctuality is your friend: its absence drives away some of your most useful people, though they never tell you that.
There will be people who haven’t seen each other since London and want to compare notes. There will be people with “urgent” agenda items etc.
So, maybe 6 to 6.30 is for mingling, etc etc. But for god’s sake start promptly at whenever it is.
Rather than have a super large group being addressed by two or three of the “long-term” activists for the first fifteen minutes, I would have a max five minute intro, that was livestreamed for the benefit of those who couldn’t be there (But livestreaming the whole meeting would be impossible on the format I am proposing, and ill-advised for multiple reasons.)
I would almost instantly break into small groups (“decentralised culture” etc etc). But the WAY you break into those groups is crucial. If you allow it to happen “spontaneously” you will end up with clumps of people who already know each other very well, and then lots of people who don’t know anyone all strangers together and a definite clique of the cool people who went to London versus everyone else.
So, here’s what I would do. I’d get everyone into either in a long snake from Jan 1st day of birth at one corner of the room, through to Dec 31st at the other, with as many switchbacks as required, If the space makes that tricky, then get them clumped by month of birth (footnote 2) This means that people will a) inevitably talk to strangers and b) inevitably a few people will have the same day of birth or perhaps even the same exact age
Once you have people clumped in those, you then break down into groups of 4, with an additional facilitator and a note-taker too. Why not bigger groups? Because if there are even 5 people in a group, you get an active dyad/triad and a passive two or three people watching the conversation take place. With a hateful eight, that is even worse, and only a super confident and skilled facilitator is going to be able to easily deal with that. And then there are gender dynamics and age dynamics at play. And not all your facilitators will be super-confident, so why make life harder for them?
Facilitators need to watch out for
- people talking over others, interrupting (esp if it is their friends. It is far more common for men to talk over women, but any talking over is to be discouraged)
- getting way off topic
- people’s grief.
Oh, that’s a good point – I reckon a safe/quiet space, the ability to go and talk to someone about climate grief would be super good. This looking into the abyss thing – it’s opening a proper can of worms/whoopass.
And my criteria for each group would be to have an equal mix of people involved already in XR and those slightly or totally new to it.
And the main mission of those discussion groups would be for people to get to know each other (so instead of the horrible tokenistic name-go-round, I’d have people work in pairs and then introduce the other person to the group on the basis of “this is X, they live in Y, they want to talk about Z”.).
The facilitator and notetaker are there to keep conversation flowing and capture (Chatham House Rule) any particular questions, insights, suggestions.
I’d then have a SEPARATE space for people who weren’t interested in the “London Debrief” (3) (because they weren’t there, because they were, because they are actually more interested in the what next questions), who could then clump together in groups of 5.
I would have a very clear amount of time (40 mins?) for people to do this,and you know, I would have very very limited feedback into the main group (none would be my preference, tbh.) Why? Because that almost always gets bogged down in technical points, some people will try to hijack it for announcements and grandstanding. If there are questions that haven’t been answered within the group, they can be dealt with later, as long as they’ve been clearly written down. That’s what the new and beautiful website can be for.
Then I’d say that the groups were about to be re-formed and so if anyone wanted to catch someone else’s email/twitter/Tindr/phonenumber then now was a good time.
Then I would rearrange the groups on the basis of…
Wait for it
Wait for it
Not who took it at GSCE (or O-levels, frankly, for some of the older farts), but in terms of where they live now.
I’d have a section that said “the desolate north” , with areas for all those poor souls from Wigan, Bolton and so on
Since most people coming to the meeting are probably Manchester-y, I’d sub-divide into Didsbury/Longshdt/Levenshulme, Moss Side/Hulme, Whalley Range/Chorlton etc
And then I’d break down again into small groups, but this time a little bigger (6 or 7? – this is where the facilitators would earn their keep).
And I’d do pairwise intros again, but a bit more detailed – name, projects involved in/know about and things that could/should happen in local area and what resources (skills, knowledge, relationships) are needed for that to happen
And I’d get those running for 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, you’d have people circulating to make sure groups were okay, facilitators and note-takers not frazzled/confused/overwhelmed.
Meanwhile, I’d have loads of paper forms where people could put down not just what skills they have, but what skills THEY WOULD LIKE TO DEVELOP. And also a disclaimer that said “if you don’t have skills that “seem relevant”, and you don’t want to develop them, THAT IS FINE. PLEASE PLEASE STICK AROUND: we need your ideas, your time, your energy.” I’d also have the same form online as a contact form via googledocs
The point of the meeting is not to make definite plans, but to cultivate ideas and relationships. So, no plenary, no consensus decision making, no Q and A that gets hugely bogged down.
So, I’d do SHORT announcements first (but remember, there’s a website now) and then I’d have each group could choose one idea that they think is really good and there could be a go-round “We’re the Moss Side crew, and we think [insert their best idea].”
Then feedback from each group would obviously get typed up and the non-secret stuff shared.
People remember the most intense bit and the last bit of any meeting, so it is crucial to end on a high note, with a definite end, as close to the official end time (8 o’clock?) as humanly possible. For me, personally, songs don’t do that. Maybe a quote from the latest Greta Thunberg talk or something. Whatevs.
After the meeting, aka “What about all those people who wanted to come but couldn’t, or want to know what happened?”
Quickly (within 24 hours) get a blogpost up on the snazzy website about what happened, for the folks who couldn’t be there. Invite people to share their own reflections on the meeting, on the website. Blog posts could include some video footage of people being interviewed about what they have done so far for example (video vox pop).
In the blog post include something about the ways people can support XR Manchester and the broader climate movement in Manchester without getting arrested and without coming to meetings.
So, that’s it. There’s heaps I left out (!) because this was already painfully long, and it has stopped raining enough now for me to walk around the park with my backpack full of bricks, handing out slips of paper about the “Hey, Manchester City Council, declare a climate emergency” petition.
Will put up one of these style things soon for the Thurs 23td May meeting. Watch this space. Meanwhile, if everyone would please share my latest neologism. Which one? This one –
What could go wrong
Lots of people turn up continuously through the meeting – need forming into new groups and given clear facilitation.
Some people kicking off – skilled de-escalation facilitators required
Some people not knowing when to shut up – social pressure
Problems that you can do very little about include
Journalists looking for an easy story
(1) So why not just be spontaneous? Say you’ve got 90 minutes, just divvy out 30 minutes per thing – welcome new people, then talk about the past, then talk about the future. Bish bosh, done. In terms of design and facilitation of this meeting, Just “winging it”, being “spontaneous” will mean that it is very likely that
a) the most confident speak the most (see Jo Freeman, The Tyranny of Structurelessness)
b) that it’s chaotic,
c) that important things don’t get discussed adequately.
And the most important thing will probably get the least time, since the first two are likely to over-run in the extreme. Those three each, on their own, could take up LOTS of time and energy. I would argue that the third is by far the most important, and that the huge risk is that the first two will take so much longer than people expect that there is simply no time for the crucial (Beginnings of) discussion about the third option.
(2) There other ways of sorting – how many times arrested, how long spent in London, how old etc, but for various reasons, those suck: this one is still unusual and ‘trivial’
(3) Every time I see that or type it, I shudder more…